January marked the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, President Johnson’s initiative that charged America’s institutions to create “maximum feasible participation” for those most affected by lack of opportunity. This focused effort made a lasting difference on living standards in Appalachia – but poverty, high unemployment, and shortened lifespans outlasted the war. During the last 18 months, Eastern Kentucky lost 6,000 coal mining jobs, often the highest paying career available in our region, leaving coal employment at its lowest levels since record keeping began in the 1920s.
Eastern Kentucky has 20 counties which are federally-designated as distressed, more than twice the number of any other state in Appalachia. Distressed counties have a three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate that fall within the bottom ten percent of the nation. On a recent winter weekday in Pikeville, Kentucky, almost 1,700 people traveled from mountain counties throughout Eastern Kentucky to participate in a day-long summit named “SOAR” — Shaping Our Appalachian Region. State and federal political leaders solicited ideas for a new regional planning process, which produced 600 written ideas about how to make positive change. We could not ask for a more encouraging sign that the local will exists to sustain our communities regardless of persistent, grinding economic distress.
Our region’s arts and culture sector is poised to make contributions to the civic, social, and economic transitions that are necessary for the future. Local partnerships that incorporate artists, arts organizations, social services, civic organizations, and the public have proven themselves a potent way to help a broad cross-section of community members take on complex projects here, including economic development. With this kind of infrastructure in place, communities can identify local issues and develop creative, ongoing solutions. Read the rest of this entry »